Tony Joe White’s Sonic Boom

Do people’s voices reflect who they are as people? Or are they merely a product of anatomy? Be careful with this one.  It’s controversial, as I discovered through some random polling of friends.

It’s a question I started pondering as I lunged across the room to the radio for what seemed the umpteenth time, to turn off a new voice that’s appeared like a plague sore on my favourite public radio station. It’s a harsh, nasty voice that seems to be intent on beating me over the head with a piece of 4 x 2. A voice that may well cause me to not renew my membership. HELLO! DID YOU HEAR THAT, VOICE?

I know I should get a grip and just ignore it. I know I shouldn’t feel like I need a crossbow to defend myself from its violence. I know I’m being ridiculous.  Nevertheless, if this voice was in the same room as me, I’d be hard-pressed to act reasonably towards the person who owns it. Please don’t judge. I don’t want to be this way. I have Voice Sensitivity. Every week, I have some kind of VS episode…

Tony Joe White. Louisiana swamp rock bluesman. I went to see him play recently and with his first few words, I had some kind of girly meltdown. “Oh my god,” I tittered to my friend A. “He has a ridiculously low voice.” I said this, expecting to hear my voice, which is normally low-ish for a woman – “contralto” as they say in the classics – but on this occasion it was “Minnie Mouse after sucking helium”.

The older couple in front of us exchanged a knowing smile.  I realized (a) I’d been Tony’ed and (b) I’d just stated the bleeding obvious. Oh yessiree, his voice was low. Did they also happen to know that I was instantly harbouring illicit and unseemly thoughts about Tony Joe White, a man old enough to qualify for a pension card in this country? The man himself was singing ‘Stockholm Blues’ and as if he knew the effect of his voice, smiled to himself as he blurred the edges of a line or two into a growl.  Sweet Jesus. Maybe Tony Joe White still finds it funny after all these years, having a voice with the timbre capable of reducing a grown woman into a giggly mess from 100 metres, within 30 seconds. It was less Stockholm Blues than Stockholm Syndrome – a more willing hostage to a baritone you would never meet. I tried to imagine him telling me about getting caught in traffic on the way to the gig (“I told the cabbie not to take Punt Road…”), the new hard drive he’d bought, or the food he’d picked up for his dog at Aldi…something banal so I could get my real voice back. It didn’t work. Megabytes or Meatybites, I’d still be hanging on every word and talking like a squeaky wheel.

There were a lot of men at the gig. Men over 40, mostly. Men who wanted to be Tony Joe White.

When TJW played ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ , the combination of that baritone and the delicate filigree of his guitar playing reminded me of a conversation with a male friend of mine who is about to become a father. Ideally, M. had said, he’d like the baby to be a girl. I had replied: ‘Girls are great but it would be a lovely thing to bring a beautiful man into the world.”

‘What’s a beautiful man?’ he asked.

‘You know, a man who’s confident in himself, so he doesn’t feel the need to be domineering or aggressive. A man who’s strong enough to be soft. A man who speaks well of his wife. A man who stands by his friends. A man who spends time with his kids and encourages them.”

Another physically-affecting-voice-moment happened recently at a café. It was mid-morning and on the way home from dropping my car at the mechanic, I had stopped off for a second coffee and a late breakfast. I got the window table, there were home-made, fresh churros and as I started to read the paper, a gentle rain began to fall outside.  It was life, as advertised. But then just when I thought it couldn’t get more perfect, the café filled with the most beautiful male singing voice.  I looked around to see where it was coming from.  There was a record player on the counter with an album cover showing the face of one  Sam Cooke.  Ah!

Hmmm… there was that question again. Is a beautiful man also a man with a beautiful voice?

Was Sam Cooke a beautiful man?

Is Bill Callahan a beautiful man?

Are the Fleet Foxes beautiful men?

Does Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s sublime voice mirror his soul? Thom Yorke’s? Was Roy Orbison a beautiful man? (A spookier looking dude you never saw but what a voice!) Sam Beam (AKA Iron & Wine)? What about Justin Hawkins from The Darkness? I think in this case, while his falsetto is incredible,  it’s the jumpsuit that hints of the  evolved being within. I don’t know. You tell me. Is a person’s voice merely about the mechanics of the body, or is it a reflection of the soul? While you’re thinking about that, have a listen to  Eddie Current Suppression Ring’s take on what makes a “Gentleman”.

PS: My friend’s baby? It’s a boy!

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